Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

To say we were excited about our visit to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons is quite the understatement; I've wanted to go here for a while, but, despite being only three junctions away on the M40, the idea of spending three figures a head on lunch, no matter how many 'free' olives and bread rolls you can scoff, made it a rather distant prospect in the grand scheme of things.

Luckily that's what civil partnerships were invented for; far too stylish for mere Breville sandwich toasters and fluffy bath towels, some of our very kind friends presented us with a gift of lunch at Le Manoir. I was ecstatic. Long after the glitz of the big day and excitement of the honeymoon had paled, we would still have the thrill of five courses of seasonal grub, plus canapes and petit fours to look forward to. We just had to remember to have a lovely time; and avoid racking up a huge bar bill....

As soon as we swung up the driveway all efforts at modesty were forgotten. We were at Le Manoir! I was wearing a jacket and proper shoes for goodness sake (and some other garments, obviously). This was no time for economising.

And what better way to start lunch any meal than with champagne. Some people may think fizz is overrated, others may think it's vulgar; my dad claims it makes him feel depressed the next morning, and it brings out my sister's fiery side, but I love the stuff. Celebration, commiseration, just to get a bit squiffy, there is never a good reason not to pop the cork on a bottle of pop and quaff away.

We both chose a French 45, a mixture of gin, champers, sugar and lemon juice (supposedly so named as it packs a punch, rather like being shelled by a French 75mm field gun ), and it certainly lived up to its name. It was quite lovely, and certainly a summer rival to my favourite, cognac-based, classic champagne cocktail.

Fortunately its potency stopped us drinking too many (the Ewing was driving, so it fell on my shoulders to drink the lion's share of the booze). To accompany our drinks a few dainty little morsels; radish and yuzu cream, goats cheese mousse with olives, some sort of tomato pastry and a salmon tartare with caviar I'm still dreaming of now.

After reclining on the sofas for a bit, getting rather tight on our lethal drinks and attempting to stab a bowlful of tiny petit Lucque olives with a cocktail stick while trying to appear elegant, we were led to our table in the restaurant. I don't normally notice where I'm sitting, (unless you have to poke folded beer mats under a wonky table leg, or avoid a swinging loo door), but here we were taken to a rather lovely table in the L'orangerie, with views both out across the dining room and into the Manor grounds. Perfect for people watching (and seeing which set of cutlery everyone else was employing for eating each course).

(The Ewing would like me to point out that of course we know which eating irons to use for what type of food. And besides, they've got plenty of reserves if you should want to use your soup spoon to eat your risotto. There's no licking your knife so you can reuse it for the next course in this gaff.)

Bread. Giles Coren claims in his recent book, How Not to eat, that stuffing yourself with stodge is a dining crime. Saying 'it's not a first course, but a breakfast food that will ruin your whole damn meal. And make you fat'. Well, balls to all that.

Even at the start of a marathon meal, I wasn't prepared to turn down the great basket of, still warm, rolls and bread proffered to us. There were pointy little French rolls and slices of sun dried tomato ciabatta, buttery slabs of foccacia and chunks of crunchy sourdough. All of it taking minutes from my life and adding inches to my waistline just by merely looking at it. But, by God, I would die happy.

I must confess I had failed to listen to all the numerous types the waiter had painstakingly described to us; he had got me at bacon bread. A crusty roll liberally studded with chunks of smoky pig, two of my very favourite things nestled up under a liberal schmear of butter. The Ewing had the beer and mashed potato roll, looking quite beautiful in the picture above, and again a thing of joy. (I showed absolutely no will power by also polishing off a very nice little triangular walnut and raisin number, too).

To kick things off properly a shot of gazpacho with a confit tomato dusted in black olive.

I had to confess I was a little deflated reading this on the menu; a thimble of cold soup when it's chucking it down outside didn't really warm the cockles of my heart. But here, reader we have the true problem of trying to write about things on the internet; no superlatives can really explain how wonderful this actually tasted.

Any one familiar with M. Blanc is probably well aware of his 'signature' tomato essence, an amber liquid made by stringing up a jelly bag of crushed cherry tomatoes and letting the juices slowly drip through, and this was an extension of that. The tomato being joined by hints of cucumber and pepper to create a shot of summer.

Confit salmon with more of Raymond's beloved yuzu, lemon verbena, borage, radish and the most curious lettuce leaves, that appeared to have been iced, but were served at room temperature. Some Googling later I found this was, the aptly named, ice lettuce, and while not tasting of anything more than ordinary salad, it certainly looked very lovely.

The salmon had been perfectly cooked to still remain translucent, and flaked apart at the merest prod of the fish knife (which I always find is rather like trying to eat with a mini plasterer's trowel, but fun nonetheless).

The next course was a poached egg with Jabugo ham and asparagus. They had very kindly accommodated my ouef aversion by replacing mine with a spring vegetable risotto with a herb cream from the a la carte menu. Even kinder, the front of house had also arranged for a special, personalised menu to be printed for me, reflecting the change.

The risotto was lovely. A little richer than the words 'spring vegetable' in the title suggested, but none the worse for that. A quenelle of herb cream on top melting into the perfectly al dente rice, that studded through with baby broad beans, carrots, courgettes and tomatoes and garnished with toasted pine nuts.

The assiette of Cornish lamb. Surprisingly, for a confirmed carnivore and lover of all things ovine, this was possibly my least favourite course. Slices of perfectly pink loin nestled on a pile of lovely, bacony petit pois al la Francais, but I found the shoulder a little dry and wasn't fussed by the (very) pink kidney, which the Ewing poetically described as 'tasting like the smell of a horses stable', or the chunk of white onion too much either.

The funniest part of the afternoon came while eating the puree served alongside the lamb. Both of us kept eating little mouthfuls, then exclaiming 'ooh, isn't this garlicky', while trying to guess what it was. Finally the Ewing relented and looked at the menu; yes, of course, it was spring garlic. Stands to reason why it had the bite of allium about it. Very nice though (not sure my work colleagues would agree so much the next day).

The cheese cart was something I was thoroughly looking forward too, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. The trolley, groaning under the weight of over thirty perfectly kept specimens, was so large it involved a little rearranging of the furniture to get it near our table, but it was certainly worth it.

Our lively and very friendly waiter, who we found out hailed from Lyon, was more than happy to describe everything to us (including one of my favourite stories of how Roquefort was discovered), while recommending a few of his favourites for us to try, too.

We enjoyed, amongst others, a spicy goat with the metallic kick of a blue cheese, some excellent Comte, from M. Blanc's home region, a pungent brie with a hint of the farmyard, and some gloriously sticky, creamy Gorgonzola. I also tried Boulette d'Avesnes for the first time, a spicy cone-shaped cow's milk cheese, rolled in crimson paprika.

Served alongside were a selection of dried figs, membrillo and black grapes, as well as a choice of water crackers, oatcakes, and a special raisin nut bread. I also enjoyed a rather lovely glass of tawny port. Really, quite a feast in itself, and a testament to our constitution (and the quality of the cheese) that we polished the whole lot off.

I may have found my heaven. And it smells like Epoisses.

Pudding was yet more deliciousness. A friable disc of bitter Manjari chocolate, dusted in gold leaf no less; balancing on a layer of chocolate ganache studded with fresh raspberries and raspberry jelly; the whole confection sitting on a rich, buttery chocolate crumble base. When all that chocolate became too much there was a little dish of wonderfully smooth raspberry sorbet, the very taste of late summer.

Unsparingly, this triple-choc hit was a very big hit with the Ewing, and I enjoyed it very much too (even though this English girl still struggles to think of a crumble without a jug of beloved creme anglais alongside ...).

Finally, a slow retreat to the lounge to attempt to digest some of our great feast with a couple of espressos. But what's this? Yet another plate of food to tempt us. This time a selection of beautiful petit fours, seemingly designed to cause us more than just digestive trouble. Here was not just an odd number of sweetmeats on the dish, but all different flavours too. Quelle horreur.

Fortunately we were both far too full to argue too much over who wanted which one, and we managed to diplomatically (if not always entirely elegantly) divide them in half so we could both sample the lot. The highlights for me being the mini macaron that resembled a tiny hamburger, complete with sesame seeds scattered on top, and the little mini nut and chocolate covered ice cream on a stick (like a posh little almond Magnum).

After paying the (mercifully) pretty modest 'incidentals' bill (as well as cocktails, I had made sure to sample a lovely Italian red with my lamb, and tawny port with my cheese, The Ewing had put her foot down when I eyed up the brandies...) we finally staggered out into the gardens.

And what better way to work off our gargantuan feast than a stroll around the grounds. Almost as famed as the food, the gardens include a huge vegetable patch, a mushroom 'valley', and a recently planted apple orchard. Guided tours can be taken twice a day, lead by some of the team that work here keeping everything looking tip top.

Complimentary umbrellas and map of the grounds in hand we set off down to the lily pond. As we stood there, on a mid July afternoon, admiring the rain bouncing hard off the water, the Ewing piped up, 'imagine what it would be like in the summer!'  Luckily, someone up above must have been listening, and very soon the sun emerged, allowing us to navigate the slippery path over the wooden bridge and up to the tranquillity of Japanese tea gardens.

Lastly to the beautiful, two acre, vegetable and herb gardens, where they grow produce for use in the restaurant. Here you can find 90 types of vegetable and 70 types of herb, including the aforementioned ice lettuce, as well as a good old fashioned scarecrow to keep the birds at bay.

And so, with the wind picking up and more dark clouds rolling over we, reluctantly, strolled once again up the lavender path, left the umbrellas in the garden wing and made our way back to the car. Five hours of straight eating and drinking, impeccable service, and a leisurely stroll afterwards, c'est magnifique! I'm already saving up for our next trip.

Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Scrumpy Sorbet with Cheddar Wafers

Apple and cheese; they may sound like unlikely bedfellows, but think of a nice crisp russet with a chunk of Lancashire, or Travis Bickle famously asking for his apple pie with a slice of Kraft on top (you may point out he was mentally unstable, but he still had great taste in snacks). The state of Wisconsin went one step further, passing a law making it illegal to serve an apple pie in a public restaurant without a hunk of cheddar alongside.

A recent trip down to Exeter for a friend's birthday got me thinking. What about an apple sorbet  served with  some sort of cheese biscuit. Flicking through some cookery books for inspiration, I stumbled upon a cider sorbetto in the new Icecreamist's book. Perfect.

First stop en route home was Greendales Farm Shop and cafe. After four days of eating birthday cake, jumping on the bouncy castle and drinking Strongbow had left us in an even more fragile state than usual. A magnificent fry up,with some of the finest black pudding I have eaten, and copious mugs of tea bought us back to life. With supplies of local scrumpy and Hobbs House bread secured, we headed back up the M5 to Cheddar Gorge to pick up the next vital ingredient.

While everybody everybody else in Cheddar was climbing Jacob's Ladder up to the top of the Gorge, exploring the caves or overdosing on fudge and ice cream, we were straight down to the cheese factory. I still remember a childhood visit here with my family, well over twenty years ago, and was very excited to go back to see one of the finest cheeses in the world being made (and try lots of samples).

This is, sadly, the only Cheddar made in Cheddar. Cheddar started to be produced here as the caves around the gorge provided the ideal maturing environment and traditionally the cheese had to be made within 30 miles of Wells Cathedral. While other foodstuffs have secured protected designation of origin to safeguard their product, Cheddar has been bastardised from the Netherlands to New Zealand. ('West Country Farmhouse' Cheddar can only be produced in Dorset, Somerset, Devon or Cornwall, but 'Cheddar' can be made anywhere.)While some of it is made with great care and following traditional methods, much of it is mass-produced, pale and tasteless.

Here you can not only go and sample and purchase several different types of cheese (and various other chutneys, pickles and kitchenware) but for a couple of quid you can get access to the cheese making factory and see it being made for yourself.

To be honest most of the day you'll be staring at a vat of whey being stirred by a paddle, with the odd curd bobbing around if you're lucky, but if you come at the the right time (around one o'clock) you can see the curds being cut, or 'cheddared', and shaped ready for pressing. (Tickets allow readmission all day, if you're really that interested by it all.)

Cheddaring observed and samples sampled, I decided to get a trio of different flavours, a West Country cider and chives, oak smoked and the traditional cave aged. Smoked cheese provokes a lot of controversy, but I really liked this. Smoky without that overpowering burn at the back of the throat. The cave aged, after many years aged in Cheddar's own caves again, was lovely. Crumbly and smooth with real character from the local, unpasteurised milk.

Both the sorbet and the wafers were a cinch. I doubled the sorbet ingredients, as the original recipe made a tiny amount, but halve it again if you like. The strong Scrumpy flavour really come through in the finished desert, so swap for a milder cider, or even a cloudy apple juice if you find the taste a little too overwhelming. Both the sugar and alcohol help keep the sorbet wonderfully smooth, but also means it needs to be eaten soon after coming out the freezer. Not too much of a problem in this household.

The Cheddar wafers are based on little Parmesan crisps. Using all Cheddar made them a little chewy, so I decided on a mixture of half Parmesan and half Cheddar. These really are the easiest things to make, and are perfect for nibbling with drinks, or garnishing risotto (add a a pinch of paprika or cayenne for a little spice).

Scrumpy Sorbet with Cheddar Wafers

For the sorbet
600ml cider
1 clove
100g caster sugar
100ml water

Place the water, clove and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring mixture to the boil and simmer gently until sugar has dissolved and a thin syrup has formed (10-15 minutes).
Allow syrup to cool, remove the clove and place in a suitable container in the fridge for at least four hours or overnight.
Add chilled syrup to cold cider and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Place sorbet in a plastic tub and place in the freezer to harden.

For the wafers
50g strong Cheddar cheese, finely grated
50g Parmesan or Pecorino, finely grated

Preheat the oven to 500c.
Thoroughly mix the two cheeses together. Place desert spoonfuls of the mixture on a non stick baking tray and place in the oven for 5-6 minutes until golden brown (careful, they can burn very easily).
Place crisps on a wire rack to cool and harden.
Store any remaining wafers in an airtight container.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

Not much can get me out of bed on a Saturday morning. Excepting those dismal weekends where I have to get up for work, usually the only thing that can lure me from under the covers is the promise of a bacon sandwich and endless cuppas. Our final Saturday in the States was somewhat different; today was the day for our long awaited trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

After a stroll along the Embarcadero, basking in the morning sunshine, we spotted the throngs of people and rows of stalls selling local fresh fruit and veg outside the ferry building. CUESA (the centre for urban education about sustainable agriculture), who run the market, have a stall offering helpful advice, including what's in season, and even have maps available to help guide you around, so you don't miss any of the good stuff.

Map in hand we started our self-guided tour outside the main entrance; California is a produce powerhouse, growing nearly half US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Here we saw, amongst other things, bunches of multicoloured carrots, crates of plump strawberries and piles of still dewey herbs and salads, picked that very morning. The quench our thirst we drank freshly squeezed blood orange juice and blueberry limeade. While the Ewing bought some giant, sweet grapefruit, to be abandoned later, uneaten, in the hotel room due to lack of suitable eating implements.

I find it hard to have favourites when it comes to food, usually it's whatever I'm stuffing in my mouth at that particular moment, but I (think) I can definitely say cherries are my favourite fruit. For a start they are one of the few truly seasonal foods While you may be able to get imported ones from somewhere outside high summer, they taste so so inferior and are so expensive it really isn't worth the trouble. Secondly they are jolly good fun. Who isn't instantly cheered at the sight of a bowl of ripe cherries? When my sister and I were young there was nothing more fun than picking through a brown paper bag full of the ripe fruit, hooking any 'doubles' over our ears like over sized earrings.

These cherries were both local and massive. I can't remember if they were particularly cheap (probably not) but they were very good value, providing plenty of entertainment as we munched our way through a pile, while sat in the sun at the end of the Ferry Plaza pier.

Outside the back of the Ferry Plaza was just as bustling, with yet more stalls and many happily munching patrons out enjoying the beautiful morning. As well as produce there is also freshly prepared food and drinks here on the pier, coming from both from outdoor concessions of the static retailers inside and producers who are just here for market days.

The first 'must' stop on my self-guided face-stuffing circuit was for brunch at 4050 meats, and, more particularly, to get a big bag of their famous chicharrones. I didn't get around to eating these until a couple of days later, and with all the other food I consumed at the market this turned out to be no bad thing.

These were quite unlike both our British scratchings, with their layers crispy rind, soft fat and tufts of hair; or American pork rinds, which are light, crunchy and brittle. Instead these snacks resembled mis-shapen quavers, and dissolved on the tongue in rather the same way. The difference between these and the maize-based cheese snacks being that the chicarrones melted and 'fizzed' to leave a rich, lard-like coating, flavoured with sugar, salt and spice, in the mouth.

While these may not be to everyone's taste, and even I found the richness meant half a small bag in one go was plenty, they are perfect for poricine aficionados. I can't imagine there would be much better accompaniment to a cold glass of Anchor Steam Beer on a warm evening.

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, as soon as I had woken up in my motel room that morning, a mere half a mile away from the Ferry Building, I had seen 4050 Meats had posted pictures of the day's menu board. I had already decided: A fried chicken Yum Yum would soon be mine.

The picture above cannot do justice to one of the best things I ate during our whole three week trip. It really was that incredible. A piece of impossibly juicy chicken had been coated in crushed chicarrones (yes, that's right, it already sounds awesome), before being fried and topped with crunchy slaw, fava leaf aioli and jalapenos. The Ewing's version ditched the slaw for a perfectly cooked fried egg, that gently oozed its golden load all over the gently toasted Acme bun as she bit into it.

4505 Meats on Urbanspoon

The Hog Island Oyster Co. has a restaurant at the Ferry Plaza, but also has a stand outside on market day. Their oysters are mostly grown locally, 40 miles north of SF at Tomales Bay. While you can get baked oysters, chowders and grilled cheese sandwiches at their bar, outside it's just the oysters of the day, on ice with a slice.

The Ewing with her collection of bivalves. There were two each of the three varieties here, although I'm dammed if either of us can remember what they were (I think one was the Hog Island Sweetwater, and possibly a Peter Point, too?) As mentioned before I'm not the biggest fan of 'sea snot' but I manfully gulped the smallest one down. It was actually rather pleasant, although that may have been more the picturesque setting, or the midday sun going to my head.

Hog Island Oyster Company on Urbanspoon

Cap'n Mike's Holy Smoke Salmon, home of the smoked salmon 'Swim Jims'. These were a fishy take on the more common meaty brethren and made a very good snack; sweet, smoky and nicely spiced, like a kind of fishy sweet (although far nicer than that may sound). It was my great regret we couldn't pick up some of their San Francisco style lox, but with no fridge at the motel, and a belly full of Yum Yum, we had to pass on by until the next time.

Cow Girl Creamery, another well know Ferry Market institution. The very friendly lady manning their small stall outside was very happy to let us sample the wares, including a milky, yet surprisingly flavoursome Mt. Tam triple cream and St Pat spring to summer hard cheese, wrapped in nettle leaves.

The Red Hawk is their take on a European washed rind cheese. This had been washed in salt water, and had gained a pleasing, meaty pungency, without being nearly as overpowering as the Epoisses and Muensters found across the pond. The Lady at the counter explained that the Europeans tended to be the biggest fans of the Red Hawk, and it was our favourite too. The chunk we bought would later be enjoyed in an Acme bread sandwich, with a slice of good Mortadella and a glass of red.

Cowgirl Creamery on Urbanspoon

Boccalone: Tasty Salted Pig Parts. This did exactly what it said on the tin. As well as selling house made salamis (you can see them hanging up to dry in cabinets around the shop), choritzo, sausages and other charcuterie, they also make a variety of sandwiches to eat either perched at the counter, or wrapped up for takeaway.

Sadly I didn't rate my changes of getting a piece of their jellied head cheese, blood pudding, or a bag chiccioli (pressed pig fat and skin) home in one piece, but I did pick up a brown sugar fennel salami for the suitcase. They also sell mortadella dogs. Another reason, if any more were needed, to get myself back on a plane heading Stateside pronto.

The infamous Bocclaone 'meat cone'. This came with a preselected variety of meats (you can pick your own for a buck extra), including a pistachio-studded mortadella and some slices of very good salami. I also had a chance to sample some of their house made n'duja while waiting at the counter; rich and smooth with a fearsome chilli kick.

Boccalone on Urbanspoon

Acme bread, one of the proponents of the Bay Area 'bread revolution', leading to the rise of artisan bread across America. Although you'll find their bread cropping up everywhere, from restaurants to corner shops, only here and in their original Berkeley (whole-sale only) home will you find their full range of baked goods.

Between us we tried the alleterative Rye Raisin Rabbit (perfect with the Red Hawk cheese), levain rolls and a sour baguette. Good bread is my desert island dish, and I would be more than happy to be castaway with nothing but a bag of their buns for company.

Acme Bread Company on Urbanspoon

The Mietta bakery. I wasn't originally planning to stop for cakes at all, but, while stood in the queue for a Blue Bottle Coffee, my willpower melted like the ice cream sandwiches people were chomping in the doorway. I had to go in.

It's sometimes easy to overdose on tweeness, loosing sight of the reason we loved these things in the first place, but it turns out Mietta was good call. The Ewing and I had two of the chocolate cupcakes, topped with Italian meringue and jelly beans. These were cute without being style over substance. The meringue (after our trip to Paris one of my current favourite things) was ethereal, the sponge managing the clever trick of being both dense and fluffy.

Another slab of brilliance; Miette Earl Grey ice cream, sandwiched between two chocolate cookies. Tea flavours seem to have a great affinity with dairy (having recently had Earl Grey panna cotta and matcha ice creams that were both quite lovely) and this was no exception. A properly grown up snack, the subtle, citrussy bergamont managing to hold its own against the tea and the bitter chocolate.

Miette Cakes on Urbanspoon

Blue Bottle Coffee, the site of our final, and the Ewing's most highly anticipated, stop on our gluttonous tour. We had seen our first branch on the ground floor of the Rockafeller Centre In New York, some three weeks before, but I had insisted we wait until we were on the West Coast for our first taste of the California-based brew. Despite there being many other places around for a cup of joe, the line for Blue Bottle is still the longest in the Ferry Plaza, with people patiently snaking around the market for their caffeine fix.

Blue Bottle are serious coffee purveyors in a serious coffee town. There is a particular interest in brewed coffee, their Mint Plaza branch has the only halogen siphon bar in the States; $20,000 worth of coffee machine imported (with much care) all the way from Japan. While this may all seem overly  obsessive and pretentious, Blue Bottle is very far from style over substance. This is simply about getting the very best beans and turning them into the very best beverage.

A row of ceramic drippers stuffed with cones of filter paper, ready for their made-to-order single origin drip coffee. In a world of super duper, triple skinny soy lattes with a flake on top (here the menu is very much pared back, but you can get a mocha made with Tcho chocolate and affagatos made with Humfrey Slocombe ice cream), I decided to get back to basics with one of these.

It was a pretty perfect coffee; normally I far prefer the promise of coffee (the smell of the freshly ground beans, the pomp and circumstance that surround its creation) to the finished product. A mouthful of thick and oily espresso, especially if accompanied with a brandy, is always nice after a big dinner; and a bowlful of cafe latte, with a croissant to dunk, is de rigueur on trips across the Channel, but i usually find I''m just as happy with a mug of PG Tips.

This coffee came with no bells or whistles, it was just a good cup of joe; nicely bittersweet with decent body, and not too rich to be sipping out in the sun. Normally I get bored half way through  drinking anything much bigger than a double espresso, but here I was interested to the end. It was good enough for the Ewing to buy her own ceramic dripper, to try and create some of their simple coffee alchemy at home (yes, it's still in the box...).

The Ewing tried a cup of their celebrated cold brewed New Orleans coffee. A mixture of coarsely ground beans, chicory and cold water is allowed to infuse overnight, before being served over a good handful of ice, with a splash of organic Clover milk and sugar if you want it. An ice coffee for grown ups. 

The cold brewing means the coffee isn't at all bitter, but keeps a good depth of chicory-coffee flavour that stays nicely balanced against the sweet, creamy milk. Fortunately, for those who can't come every week for their caffeine fix, Blue Bottle have instructions of how to brew your own on the website. And despite the dismal summer so far, the Ewing has had a jug permanently on the go in our kitchen, going some way to bring a small slice of California coffee-tinged sunshine to these shores every morning.

Blue Bottle Coffee on Urbanspoon